Chapter Two: Slugging it Out

I refuse to be stumped. Okay, that’s not true. I refuse to accept a prolonged state of stumpedness.

After I rewrote the first chapter, I got about halfway into the second chapter and was not at all satisfied with the interaction of my main characters. I mean, the characters as individuals were interesting, but they weren’t interacting in interesting enough ways with each other. Part of the problem is the scene that was stumping me was centered around a conversation in a bar — not inherently engaging. I pondered this for several days, trying several different tactics. I began to fear that I was going to have to re-arrange major parts of the plot and characters. (And hey, that might still happen.)

But eventually, I took a big sheet of butcher paper and taped it to the inside of a closet door. And I went to brainstorming. I was thinking that I needed to write standing up to solve the problem. I needed to see it on a big white space and feel free to sketch ideas wherever they occurred to me in a sort of spatial thinking space. I was right. I solved several problems with the scene, made a few of the characters much more interesting and seeded future interesting sub-plots. It was incredibly refreshing.

Painful Exposition?

It seems to me that when expositing in science-fiction the risk of being obtrusive is nearly unavoidable. Likely, you’re dealing with concepts that are completely new, so exposition is required. Here are some of the strategies:

1) Find a character who, for whatever reason, doesn’t understand the way his or her world works. Perhaps, they’re a child, or they’ve been living in a cave, or they’re from another time. And then have that character ask dumb questions. You can even get some character conflict mileage out of this dynamic.

2) Each time you introduce a new concept, just launch into description — potentially the most obtrusive of the techniques.

3) Exposit through action. Show how things work as part of the action that advances the story. Just make sure not to invent sub-plots for this obvious purpose.

4) If the thing to be exposited is complicated, it would make sense to have one character teaching another how to interact with it.

5) Don’t exposit. Leave some mystery. This technique can be used along with number 3 well.

What other methods can you offer?

Crafting the Beginning

I am now caught in the infinite loop of the first chapter. I have this habit of browsing books by reading their first line, because I place so much importance on how a story opens. After having taken my first stab at the first chapter, I am, as is to be expected, disgusted with it. Expositionally, it does everything I need it to. Characters are being established. Plots and sub-plots are being set up. A world is unfolding. And yet, having read it out loud once, I find it flat. Suspense is lacking. And although, I realize that suspense is coming in the next chapter, I don’t think it’s soon enough. So I’m setting about revising. As of now, I’ve invented a new character to provide a foil (for both the main character and for the world), and I’m altering the professions of the protagonist and his friend. I’m also considering putting the main character in jeopardy somehow. Needs more thought. There’s more to be done, but I’m feeling better about it.  Until, I’ve written it, and then, of course, I’m sure I’ll need to scrap it again.

The Inevitable Impressions of Good Writing

How often has this happened to you? You’re working on a novel, and simultaneously you’re reading a good book or story. And as you’re reading, you start thinking, “Hmm, maybe I should do something like that in my story.”

It happens to me constantly. I’m considering changing the entire genre/sub-genre of my novel just because I read a couple of good short stories. It’s crazy, right?

My excuse his time is that I’ve never read this particular genre/sub-genre, but still, it seems a bit drastic. Of course, I usually advocate drastic, so I’ll do it.

I never plagiarize, but I do tend to zero in on emotions, moods and character relationships. I was just reading a story about this group of friends who were a team with one, aristocratic leader. It was done very differently from what I was used to reading, and I became inspired.

Here’s a completely different thought I had recently. The word “unspeakable” is horrible, isn’t it? Because it’s non-specific, it calls on the worst possible thing you can think of, which is, of course, horrendous. It very much reminds of Lovecraft, who often referred to things so dark and horrible that to just know of them would drive a man insane.

Wherefore Author Go Thou?

I have the plot, almost intricately so. I have the 15+ characters. I find myself looking for the why. Why am I writing this? Why would someone care? And perhaps, how will this be different than what’s gone before? And finally, are any of these questions I should be bothering with?

My instinct is to answer the last of those questions in the affirmative. Not that you can’t write a valid work without worrying about those questions. But I’m not sure I, personally, am the kind of person to do that.

I feel really positive about what I have so far, but I feel I need to throw a monumental monkey wrench in there, and my conscious mind still has no idea what that is. “What if the villain is really the hero?” “What if the main character turns out be an artificial intelligence, and we learn this near the end of the story?” That sort of thing.

When I first started wondering about these questions, I took a look at the protagonist. But he revealed nothing. I know who he is, and he seems to have depth. But he doesn’t seem to demand any more story.

Back to staring out the window.

Words are messy, but they’re the only ones we’ve got.

Novel & Story Writing: Outline or Freeform

As I begin work on my third novel (all unpublished to date — I’m working on it), I find myself discovering incredible value in the outline. When I first began writing long-form fiction, I embraced the romantic notion that one just began in a flurry of inspired passion, starting with sentence one and rushing to the end. No doubt, there are successful authors who have used this technique. But increasingly, I ask myself, why?

It very well may be the nature of the tale I enjoy spinning, with myriad characters following their own intertwining paths through the story. I suppose if you were writing a simple story of one man with a singular obstacle,  an outline would be less necessary. Even then, there would be value.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of discovery through writing. It’s imperative I think. And there will be always be rewrites, even with the best-planned outlines. But an outline allows you to see the big picture that otherwise would, at least on some levels, elude the writer.

I use the term outline loosely here. My current outline consists of scene descriptions, character stories and even world descriptions. But as I develop my “outline,” I have found the thrill of creative discovery that rivals that found in writing straight pose. And I think that discovery comes from seeing how all these objects interact in my little world — often with delighted surprise.

I am incredibly anxious to start the prose phase, but I also am embracing the joy found in crafting a well-thought-out plot, filled with relevant and intriguing characters.

Words are messy, but they’re the only ones we’ve got.